The University of Houston welcomed its fourth head coach in the past 10 years when former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin, 43, arrived at Cullen Boulevard. Often, such instability would be the mark of a program in turmoil, one that frequently finds itself at the bottom of its conference standings. But that's not the case with UH. The Cougars have won 18 games, a conference championship, and been to two bowls in the past two years, four in the last five. And while many UH fans were understandably perturbed by the seemingly underhanded way in which former coach Art Briles left for the head job at Baylor, most Cougar partisans think their new coach is the man to take the program to the next level. Sumlin's bona fides compare favorably with any assistant in the country. He has been at Oklahoma since 2003. He coordinated the special teams there for two years before being named co-offensive coordinator in charge of the passing game for the 2006 season. Last season, OU's freshman quarterback, Sam Bradford, led the nation in passing efficiency. In 2001, Sumlin was named the assistant head coach at Texas A&M, and in 2002 he became the Aggies' offensive coordinator three games into the season; he almost saved R. C. Slocum's job. When he took over the offense, the A&M was #106 nationally in total offense and were averaging a paltry 16 points per game. They finished the season #47 nationally in offense, a spot ahead of UT. And the 16 points per game zoomed to 29 under Sumlin's guidance. Besides Bob Stoops and Slocum, Sumlin has worked and learned under Joe Tiller, Glen Mason, and Mike Price. He was a serious candidate for the Washington State job, and Texas A&M would have loved to have had him back as their offensive coordinator. Some Aggies wanted him as head coach. But athletic director Dave Maggard pulled off a historic feat that's well in the tradition of the University of Houston. UH integrated college athletics in Texas and the South some 40 years ago, and now the University has the honor of being the first Division I-A program in Texas to hire an African-American as its head football coach.
The staff assembled by Sumlin is as competent as any UH has had in years. If Sumlin can recruit players as well as coaches, the Cougars can add "No" in the middle of the university's seal, which reads, "In Time." Purloining Texas Tech's offensive coordinator, Dana Holgerson, was a major coup. Holgerson will oversee the switch to a Tech-like, wide-open passing offense. New defensive coordinator John Skladany is just as impressive. He was most recently the defensive coordinator for the 2007 C-USA champion UCF Knights. Before his one-year stint in Tampa, Skladany coordinated the defense at Iowa State for a decade. While the Cyclones aren't known as a Big 12 power, they often ranked highly in defense under Skladany. In 2005, they were 35th nationally, 29th in ‘04, and 36th in 2001 despite playing with lesser athletes than their counterparts at Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and some other Big 12 schools. Skladany will also work with safeties. Many other coaches on the staff have notable resumes. The Cougars' linebacker coach is none other than Leon Burtnett, former head coach at Purdue, former Big 10 Coach of the Year, and a former NFL coordinator with the Colts. Jason Phillips is back on board. JP will coach wide receivers and help coordinate the offense. Few are as familiar with the run-n-shoot as Phillips, a first-team All-American at UH in 1988. He's also an excellent recruiter. Jim Jeffcoat can't help but add a "wow factor" to UH recruiting, especially with high school defensive linemen. All he has to do is flash the two Super Bowl rings he won as a defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys; he also coached the defensive line for the Pokes. New offensive line coach Joe Gilbert may remind long-time Cougar fans of "Coach Malice" AKA former OL coach Billy Willingham. Gilbert tutored offensive linemen at UCF from 2004-06 and at Toledo from 2001-03. The announcement of Tony Levine as special teams coordinator was manna from heaven to the Cougar faithful, who saw mistakes aplenty with special teams under the previous regime. Levine was a successful special teams coordinator at Louisville before accepting a position as assistant special teams coach with the Carolina Panthers. Clarence McKinney, who will coach running backs, doesn't have the experience of others on the new staff, but he was a great hire. McKinney was head coach at Yates High School in Houston, and has excellent contacts throughout the city. McKinney and Phillips should be able to bring home plenty of Houston area bacon the first Wednesday of each February. The other assistant is Zac Spavital, who was a graduate assistant and cornerbacks coach at OU with Stoops and Sumlin. He'll coach the same position at UH. His surname is a legend in Oklahoma football circles, and anyone who's coached defense for Stoops presumably knows what he's doing.
So the head coach and his staff compare favorably with any school in C-USA and most any BCS school as well. The question is what kind of personnel greeted the new coaches. The Cougars return 14 starters in all, six on offense and eight on defense. Those starters include the C-USA Freshman of the Year, QB Case Keenum; offensive tackles Sir Vincent Rogers, who actually last started in '06, and Sebastian Vollmer, both of whom could be drafted; solid guard Mike Bloesch; tight end/big slot Mark Hafner, who ought to flourish in the new offense; first-team all-conference defensive end Phillip Hunt; returning defensive linemen Ell Ash, Tate Stewart, and Cody Pree; linebacker Cody Lubojasky, who's been starting since ‘05; and safeties Kenneth Fontenette and Ernest Miller, who were second and third, respectively, on the team in tackles last year. Aside from Keenum, all those players are seniors in ‘08, and when a team has talent, senior leadership is often a key determinant in how far that team goes. The strength of the offense should be the line. Case Keenum or Blake Joseph will give the Cougars one of the league's top signal callers. Running back and wide receiver aren't really weaknesses, but the Cougars will trot out some newcomers at those positions. The defensive line should be the best at UH in a long time. Linebacker is an area of concern. A couple of junior college transfers will battle for a starting position. The secondary looks strong at safety but somewhat vulnerable at cornerback, where there is experience but possibly not the level of talent the coaches would like to have. The placekicker could again be Ben Bell, who was all-conference in 2006. Punter Chase Turner has a bionic leg; however, he must improve his consistency. Replacing Donnie Avery and Anthony Alridge as return men is pretty much impossible, but some young players will be given their chance.
Just as in 2003, Cougar fans may not know until the team's first possession who the starting quarterback will be. The contenders are last year's C-USA Freshman of the Year, Case Keenum, who ranked 16th nationally in passing efficiency, and Blake Joseph, a redshirt junior with a howitzer for an arm. The two are about the same size, both in the 6-2, 210-215 range, but have different skills. Keenum is a decent passer but won't be mistaken for Peyton Manning. But he has an uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. If not for his amazing play against TCU in the 2007 Texas Bowl, UH may have had less than 100 total yards. So Keenum is a playmaker, and he‘s heady. He feels the rush and usually avoids it. And he's usually on the money on short and intermediate routes. Additionally, he's a leader, the kind of quarterback who takes control in the huddle. Joseph has better physical attributes as a passer. His problem has been developing the kinds of instincts the best quarterbacks have, be it feeling the pressure and getting the ball away, be willing to stand in and take a hit when there is a blitz, or putting touch on his passes. But offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson has been working with him, and Joseph could be the guy if he shows improvement in those areas. Both quarterbacks have good accuracy, but Joseph can thread the needle with a bullet 60 yards downfield. His arm allows him to beat coverages and make throws many quarterbacks can't. In the final analysis, the starter likely will be the guy who best picks up the new offense and improves on his weaknesses. The starting quarterbacks at Tech are invariably redshirt juniors and seniors. There's a reason for that, and it has to do with the mental aspect of the game, not physical development. Keenum was one of the best in the conference last year, so if he starts, UH will be good to go. If it's Joseph, then the Cougars will have upgraded. So regardless of who's under center on opening day, the Coogs will be in good shape at quarterback. And that's good news because while quarterback play is important in any offense, it is especially so in the one UH just installed in the spring. Cotton Turner from Blinn College was signed for depth. Turner had a head-turning career at Fort Bend Dulles, where he was one of the state‘s top passers.
The attributes needed for the running back in the new offense aren't completely different from those of backs in more traditional offenses. Good vision, acceleration, cutting ability, and soft hands may be most important. Andre Kohn (5-10, 195) will get the bulk of the carries. He's a quick, elusive runner (he was an outstanding punt returner in high school), and also a good receiver; in fact, he was recruited as a slot receiver. He must also block well in the new offense. Speaking of blocking, the Cougars' other running back, Justin Johnson, could undoubtedly lay out some oncoming linebackers. Johnson is 6-1 and pushing a solid 240 pounds. He'll be called on to take over for Kohn on occasion, and he'll also be the Coogs' short-yardage specialist much like Jackie Battle before him. Demetrius Woods (6-0, 195), who dazzled defenders with his moves as a running quarterback at Houston Lamar, has been moved from wide receiver to running back. The Cougars also signed two fine schoolboys in Bryce Beall (5-11, 195) of Tatum, who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season as he led his team to the state championship game, and Chris Wilson (5-11, 210) of Fort Bend Austin, who decommitted from UCF to cast his lot with UH. Both freshmen will be given a shot at playing time.
If only Donnie Avery had one more year of eligibility! He would have been unstoppable in the Cougars' new offense. Several newcomers must grow up in a hurry if the offense is to be as explosive as expected. Fortunately, Mark Hafner returns. Hafner (6-3, 235), who will be starting for the third year, is Old Reliable. He's a sure-handed receiver and is hard to bring down after the catch. A tight end throughout his career at UH, Hafner will play the big slot position in his final campaign. So he should get many more touches and very possibly be the team's go-to receiver. Wesley Scourten (6-6, 240) is in reserve at the big slot and provides another good-sized target; he will contribute. The other slot should be manned by Chris Gilbert, though several other receivers may have a say in who ultimately starts. Gilbert (5-8, 170), the brother of former Cougar running back Ryan, is quick as lightning, and can turn a short pass into a big play. The coaches hope he can be the kind of explosive playmaker good offenses always seem to have. Vying for playing time at his position will be freshman speedsters Tyron Carrier (5-7, 160) and E.J. Smith (6-1, 185). UH signed two junior college receivers, Lucious Henderson of Navarro, who had inked an LOI with Hawaii out of high school, and Blinn's Kierre Johnson. Both have the size and speed to play the slot or outside. The starting wideouts will be any two of L.J. Castile, Chaz Rodriguez, and Patrick Edwards. Castile, 6-3, and Rodriguez, 6-2, have more prototypical size, but the 5-9 Edwards, who walked on last year, seemed as if he could do it all in the spring. He has speed, good hands, and a strong work ethic. If he continues to shine, he will start. Castile is very athletic, and can jump through the roof. Rodriguez is also athletic--he was MVP of his high school track team-- and a smooth receiver with some speed. Tim Monroe brings more size (6-2, 185) and speed to the outside, but he has to catch the ball better. There's a good bit of uncertainty at receiver, but the Cougars need to clear it up soon. The new offense won't work if receivers aren't getting open and making catches. But Hafner is a good place to start, Gilbert has a lot of talent, and with the young returnees and the junior college transfers (and possibly true freshman speed merchant, Isaiah Sweeney), UH ought to be able to find six they can count on.
The offensive tackles at UH stack up favorably with most any pair in the country. If he stays healthy, Sir Vincent Rogers (6-4, 315) may be the best offensive lineman at UH since Rex Hadnot. Rogers was talented enough to start as a true freshman. He had problems early in his career with personal foul penalties, but he's now a fifth-year senior, and has matured. He's the bell cow, the lineman the Cougars can count on for tough, must-have yards. His opposite number is Sebastian Vollmer, known in the Cougar community as "Seabass." Vollmer has near unlimited potential. He's 6-8 and has bulked up to 320 pounds of solid rock. Seabass has the "wingspan" that offensive line coaches love, because long arms are so beneficial in pass blocking. And he's so big and strong that he won't have trouble knocking people off the line. Rogers and Vollmer have solid backups in juniors Matt Hart (6-6, 310) and Josh Bell (6-5, 315). Mike Bloesch, a good run blocker, returns at guard, where he's been starting since ‘06. Chris Thompson (6-2, 295) is a redshirt freshman with unusual speed for an offensive lineman. He has a bright future. Depth is thin at guard, though massive senior Isaiah Agson (6-3, 335) could move in on either side if needed. Carl Barnett struggled some last year at center in his first year to start, but he improved as the season went on. Barnett's best asset is his quickness. He's a good pass blocker, who can get out and pull. Jordan Shoemaker (6-3, 270) moves from blocking back to second-team center. The offensive line should be one of the top units in C-USA.
The Cougars should be every bit as salty in the trenches on defense as they are on offense, and with the move to the 4-3, that‘s a good thing since the play of the defensive line is critical in the new alignment. The leader of the pack is Phillip Hunt, a defensive end who could anchor some high school track programs' 440 relay team. Hunt (6-2, 250) is a sack master, who was first-team all-conference last season. He should flourish in the 4-3. The Coogs' other end, Tate Stewart, who started at tackle last year, has either been fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and nights or on a super-charged workout regimen. Stewart was up to close to 300 pounds about a year ago. But strength coach Larry Jackson must have taken the words of Oscar Goldman to heart: "We can rebuild him . . . better, stronger, faster." Stewart is now a svelte 245-250, and should be an excellent bookend with Hunt. Billy Hartford, who was a top sub last year, is in reserve at end, as is Michael Ray, who is about as promising a young defensive lineman as Chris Thompson is an offensive. Doug Winfield, Mamood Barbandi, Jasmine Martel, and junior college transfer Clint Leal, who could play end or outside linebacker, provide more depth. And the Cougars may be getting a player who could have a major impact on their defense at end. Kyle Thomas was one of the best junior college defensive linemen in the country. He held early offers from LSU, Tennessee, and Oregon. But he has some classwork to get done. If he does, he'll push Stewart; he's that good. If he doesn't, hopefully he'll get his hours and be on the roster in the spring. In the interior, UH will often line up a tackle over center and one over guard. Sophomore Isaiah Thompson ran with the first team in the spring at the nose tackle position. He has improved his footwork and gotten even bigger and stronger. He's 6-4, 300 pounds of muscle. But look for Cody Pree, an honorable mention freshman All-American in 2005, to push Thompson. Pree (6-2, 310) was injured during much of the spring. He's very talented, though. He just needs to be sure his motor is on full throttle all the time. Demarcus Lattier (6-2, 290) was one of the Cougars' most heralded recruits in the ‘07 class, and should contribute. At the more traditional defensive tackle position, Ell Ash (6-5, 280) holds reign. Ash is a superlative athlete, one Cougar fans have thought might follow in the footsteps of some of the greats to come through the program. But Ash, who has played well at times, hasn't yet lived up to the billing he received as a transfer from Tennessee, though some of those expectations may have been too high. But this is his senior year, and like most everyone else, coach Jackson has him looking like a classical sculpture. And Ash may profit from the new alignment. The previous staff thought he was a natural tackle, and that is what he'll play in the 4-3. Jake Ebner has played center and fullback at UH; this year he's a defensive tackle. He'll back up Ash, but the coaches may move one of the nose tackles or a big defensive end like Doug Winfield to beef up the position. The Cougars look impressive up front. Hunt and Stewart will be chasing quarterbacks, and Ash, Pree, and Thompson will have a no crossing zone sign up between the tackles. This could be the Coogs' best unit since the ‘88 group that included future NFL defensive linemen Glenn Montgomery, Alfred Oglesby, and Craig Veasey.
This is a position that causes some concern, but when it's all said and done, it could be a strength. Cody Lubojasky (6-3, 230) will be starting for his fourth year. He's not Brian Urlacher, but he's a steady performer who may benefit from the switch to the 4-3. "Lubo" could be a step faster, but he pursues relentlessly and with two outside linebackers, he'll be able to focus more on the play between the tackles. His understudy is Shomari Williams, who moves to linebacker from defensive end. Williams is a load at 6-2, 245. Tyrell Graham (6-3, 225), who comes to UH with expectations not dissimilar to those of Ell Ash, is penciled in on the weak side. He was the Greater Houston Defensive MVP several years ago, signed with Arkansas, and transferred to UH last year. Having not played in a real game for three years, Graham is rusty, but if he returns to form, he could be one of the best in C-USA. Britton Maxwell (6-0, 225) backs up Graham and is one of the team's fastest linebackers. True freshman Anthony Lewis may also see time. The strong side is something of a mystery because two talented junior college linebackers are coming in, and one could very well win the position. Nick Thurston was recruited by linebackers coach Leon Burtnett when he was an assistant at Washington State. Thurston is all of 255 and may be good enough to step in and start. He could also play in the middle. The other linebacker, A.J. Johnson (6-2, 240), is another one the coaches hope will contribute immediately. But assuming that both jucos are reserves, the starter on the strong side will be Matt Nicholson, who was the first man off the bench at inside linebacker last year and recorded 36 tackles. Nicholson has gone from being an excellent special teams player to a competent linebacker. Former walk-on C.J. Cavness was behind Nicholson at the end of spring. The worry is that the Cougars won't have enough speed at linebacker, but this could be a good unit, better than what UH has had the past few years. Much depends on how well Graham plays, and at least one of the junior college transfers coming in and usurping a starting job.
The Cougars look a little shaky at cornerback, but the safeties stack up with any set in the conference. UH has experience at cornerback. Both spots will be manned by returning starters, Quinte Williams and Brandon Brinkley. And Loyce Means played a good bit as well. Williams (5-11, 165) is a good cover corner. But at only 165, bigger receivers can outmuscle him for the ball, and his run support is questionable. He's a senior, and has lettered every year since he was a true freshman. UH needs him to play well in his final season. Brinkley, who was a safety in high school and in his freshman season, is still developing as a cornerback. He has an excellent break on the ball, and is very quick. And he's up to 5-11, 180 with room to grow. Loyce Means is the speediest corner. He's only a second-year player but has shown flashes of his potential. He's a little like Williams but with more upside. Means covers well but at 170, he can be a liability against the run and when matched up with big receivers. Freshman A.J. Edwards looks to be the fourth corner on the two-deep. Unlike the other three, Edwards is strong against the run and needs to work on his coverage skills. Kenneth Fontenette (6-0, 185) returns to what may be his best position, free safety. Fontenette is one of the best defensive backs in C-USA and has a knack for making game-changing plays. As a true freshman, he forced Tulsa's All-American tight end Garrett Mills to fumble just before he crossed the goal line for what would have been the tying TD in the fourth quarter. Against Colorado St. last year, he stripped the ball in a pile and carried it all the way to the end zone. With a strong front four, having a talented, dependable free safety can really make a defense much better. Redshirt freshman Ricardo Bates is Fontenette's backup, though if Fontenette were to be injured, the coaches would likely move Ernest Miller to his position. But Miller (6-0, 195) will start at strong safety. Last year he played a sort of hybrid linebacker position, and finished third on the team in tackles. So he's strong in run support. He also led the team in pass breakups, so he also covers well. Oklahoma State transfer Stephen James (5-9, 215) provides excellent depth. He's fast, a big hitter, and should be a capable nickel back when he's not spelling Miller. And athletic Carson Blackmon (5-11, 180) is also in the mix at strong safety and as a fifth DB in passing situations.
Special teams have been little short of an affliction the past few years at UH. Field goals have been missed and blocked, punts shanked, and on and on. And as bad as special teams could be, what made them worse was the absence of anything especially positive ever happening. Donnie Avery did return a kickoff for a touchdown last year, but was that a well-executed play or was Avery simply a man among boys who got a sliver of daylight and did the rest himself? The Cougars never blocked punts, never faked a punt, or did much of anything that was more than mundane in the kicking game. New special teams coordinator Tony Levine is expected to elevate the play. The kicker should be Ben Bell, who earned second-team all-conference honors in 2006 and then redshirted last season. Bell is consistent within 35-40 yards. He doesn't have a big leg, but he‘s improved his distance in the weight room. He's being challenged by Jonathan Gibson. Chase Turner will handle the punting duties. Turner is as talented a punter as UH has had in years. He's very capable of lofting 60-yard spirals. His problem has been consistency. But he has a year of starting experience under his belt, and should be steadier. Chris Gilbert and Chaz Rodriguez ended the spring as the top kickoff returners, but newcomers such as Oge Anoliefo and Isaiah Sweeney will be given a chance. Both were outstanding return men in high school. Patrick Edwards will return punts unless a newcomer wows the coaches. And the Coogs have some excellent special teamers returning in Chris Pilot, Matt Nicholson, and Carson Blackmon, among others. So there's hope for improvement in this crucial area.
The schedule isn't perfect, but the Cougars have some advantages. Out of conference, UH goes to Stillwater, and beating Oklahoma State on their field is a chore for programs such as OU, Texas, and Nebraska. But the other three games are very winnable. Southern at home should be a gimme. And the two MWC opponents, Air Force and Colorado State, are picked near the bottom of their league. AFA was very good last year, but lost a slew of starters, and Colorado St. wasn't very good and loses about half their starting lineup. The Cougars will, of course, shoot for 4-0, but 3-1 would be a strong non-conference showing. Unfortunately, UH has to open its conference schedule on the road against an East Division favorite, East Carolina. If the Coogs can pull that one off, fans might want to start making their late-December reservations in Memphis. Actually, the road team in the UH-ECU series has had a lot of success; in fact, the visiting team has won six of eight games in the series. The Cougars must also travel to Marshall, and the Herd should be improved this year. UAB is a home game. But UH gets a break in their own division. The two teams expected to be their toughest competitors, Tulsa and UTEP, come to Robertson. Playing at Rice and SMU will be tough but those are the kinds of games champions find a way to win; see UH in ‘06. And since the new C-USA configuration began in ‘05, half of the divisional winners have had two losses. So if UH can take care of business at home against Tulsa and UTEP, they should be well-positioned to play in the championship game.
The talent is there. The Cougars have a strong offensive line, and the quarterback, whether it's Keenum or Joseph, will be one of the league's best. The defense coming out on the field may finally be something more than an opportunity to hit the concession stand. The front four is talented and deep, and they are backed up by two very good safeties. The kicking game is also expected to improve. And this isn't a program that needs to pull itself out of the ditch as it was five years ago. The Cougars won C-USA two years ago and were one mid-range field goal away from playing in the championship game last year. Kevin Sumlin is a first-year head coach, but he's been coaching at the highest echelons of college football for years, and his staff is filled with experienced, first-rate coaches. Much will depend on how quickly the offense picks up the new scheme. Having one of the league's best offensive lines will help the transition, as will the fact that the change isn't anything drastic. It's not as if UH has been running the wishbone. Some skills players need to step up, and the defense must assert itself. It's unlikely that any but the top defenses in college football would shut down the offenses in C-USA. BYU finished #10 nationally in total defense last year, yet Tulsa hung 55 on them. Still, even if the Cougars are in shootouts, they must be able to come up with enough key stops and turnovers to make the difference. So the expectations are high, and if the Coogs can avoid key injuries and catch a break or two along the way, they could find themselves playing in the Liberty Bowl for the second time in three years.
*Photos courtesy of Stephen Pinchback